Saturday, January 30, 2010

An Ugly Week For The Human Race And Other Living Things

You could almost feel bad for Barack Nothingburger, having to deliver the exquisitely badly timed State of the Union address to the world this week. He, his signature legislative initiative, and his presidency itself were already toast, but he still had to walk in the room and pretend otherwise.

There could hardly have been a worse week for it. The days preceding his speech just brought one disaster after another for the president.

But, since he has decided to be part of the problem, while masquerading as its solution, who cares? As long as he continues to adhere to that position, I'd just as soon see his presidency wrecked and his name humiliated anyhow. Considering that treason is a capital offense, I'd say the guy is getting off easy anyhow.

However - and this may be a news flash for the White House - there is a whole other world out there. And for we ordinary folk, all 6.8 billion of us, it was also an especially bad week.

That may sound like another example of Obama-style mega-narcissism, to believe that America's problems are also the world's, but the truth is they are. We're still the big ol' superpower on the block, and we're still perfectly capable, thank you very much, of lashing out in rage toward others when we feel insecure. I'd refer any disbelievers of that notion to about a million Iraqis who could vouch for its veracity. Except for one small problem. They're dead now. So just take my word for it.

The Week From Hell started out with the heretofore unimaginable notion that Massachusetts could elect a Republican to the Senate. That he could be taking Ted Kennedy's seat. And that he could be the final blow putting so-called health care reform in America - Kennedy's long-sought legislative passion - out of its misery.

Don't get me wrong. I laughed out loud at the stupidity of Democrats thinking they could continue to win elections by being Democrats. In a way, it's a damned healthy sign that an angry and frightened public is growing increasingly intolerant of bullshit from its political class nowadays. "Aren't you the same guys who promised us big old change last year? Yeah, well guess what, now it's this year, and you haven't delivered jack. So bye." That's actually precisely the way it should be, and among the political parties in America, the Democrats would be my close second favorite choice for getting their heads handed to them on a platter by an angry public no longer willing to settle for taxpayer-funded solutions for corporations and cheap rhetoric for the rest of us. These punks had it coming and the only silver-lining to the disaster they've brought down on all of us is seeing them become its latest victims.

Don't get me wrong about healthcare, either. Everything about that legislation was wrong, and I'm delighted to see it die. It was poorly handled in every imaginable way, by what is without doubt the most inept president at least since Herbert Hoover, and by a Congress full of whores, thieves and congenital liars, and I'm happy that the whole thing exploded in their faces. Damn shame, of course, about all those millions of Americans without adequate health care. But since any assistance this bill might have provided them was going to be scant and inadvertent, anyhow, I refuse to feel bad about its demise.

Democrats know exactly what they need to do if they want to fix healthcare in America. And they also know that even if they can't get the legislation through the Senate, now that they've blown their super-majority, they could at least destroy any member of Congress who would vote against such simple reforms that minimally regulate the worst practices of the insurance industry (since we can assume that Democrats could never pull the trigger for single payer). But they also know that they ARE those members of Congress who would be destroyed. When it comes to the essential question of who they work for, they're really no different than the Grand Old Pigs.

But Scott Brown's election was a really bad thing for America and the world, at least in the short term, because when you have a two party system and the Democrats are in power, that means a vote to throw the bums out can only go in one place. The story of American politics over the next five years has already been written. In desperation for solutions, and having already forgotten how much they hated the Bush nightmare, voters will soon be handing the keys to American government back to the Republican Party, which will then promptly fail, even more egregiously than the Democrats, to provide solutions. Neither further tax cuts for the wealthy, nor the slashing of social programs, nor gay-bashing, nor some jive war in some banana republic will cure what ails Americans, and it may no longer even successfully distract them for more than a few minutes.

That's where things will get very interesting. Unfortunately, that may be 'interesting' in the unhappy sense of the ancient Chinese curse. Ask yourself this question: If a rageful and desperate America were to make a sharp ideological turn one way or the other in order to seek solutions to its maladies, which way would it go? To the left, as it did in the 1930s? Or to the right, as certain other countries you may have heard of did during the same decade? I'd say it's actually an open question, primarily because socialist-hating Americans love their socialist government programs like Medicare and Social Security, and they might even want a lot more of those as the free market system championed by the right assists them in continuing to shed their jobs, houses, security and dignity. Still, if I had to bet, I'd say the other scenario is the more likely.

And that scenario became all the more likely because of the second development of the prior week, the ghastly decision by the Supreme Court to open the floodgates for wholesale corporate purchases of the US and state and local governments. I've seen a lot of ugliness in American politics over the course of my lifetime, ranging from Vietnam to Watergate to Iraq and the current Great Recession, but few items can match the decision by the right-wing majority of the Court in Citizens United for its sheer destructive power.

Before turning to the substance of the ruling, it's important to note how we got it at all. Or, more precisely, how we didn't get it. None of the litigants in the case were actually arguing these questions or demanding this remedy. This was, instead, the purest case of 'legislating from the bench' in perhaps all of American history. The extreme right, which now owns the Supreme Court as well as the rest of American government, simply told the parties in the case that the Court was hijacking the issue and turning it into something the majority wanted to address. The lawyers were instructed to prepare new briefs, in short order, on new issues that the right-wing RATS (Roberts, Alito, Thomas, Scalia, plus Kennedy) wanted to rule on. And then they did just that. They just went ahead and wrote a new law, like any parliament or Congress would, using this hapless case as a vehicle for what they intended to do along. This, mind you, comes from the same folks who always rail against judicial activism, who rant about respecting precedent, who supposedly hate legislating from the bench, and who have told us that judges should simply 'call balls and strikes'. Except, of course, when their particular ideology happens to have a majority on the Court, that is.

But, of course, who could blame them for making this decision, even if their methods possessed all the veracity of, say, WMD as a casus belli for invading Iraq, or all the procedural and substantive integrity of Bush V. Gore, brought to you by more or less entirely the same crew who did Citizens United? I mean, after all, can anyone deny that corporations are lacking a policy-making voice in America today? Does anyone not think they are subjected to a gross institutional bias which prevents them from being heard? Does anyone not agree that they are human beings, just like you and me, and should be treated as exactly such by the law? What could be more commonsensical?

Indeed, the only thing more egregious than this decision is the way it was made, and the only thing more egregious than that is the degree of blatant hypocrisy it reveals amongst those who made it.

But that's not exactly news. What is now new is that more or less all obstacles to complete corporate control of the country have been loosed. It has now become almost impossible to argue anymore that ours is anything but a sham democracy, with sham democratic rituals meant - along with WWE wrestling matches and state-run lotteries - to distract us from the real story. And that story is the use of the American polity for no other purpose than the redistribution of wealth from the bottom and the middle to the top.

For thirty years now, the folks Teddy Roosevelt once identified as "the malefactors of great wealth" have been busy destroying the Grand Compact that once governed American labor relations and society, formerly stipulating that the upper class and middle class and even the working class would all do pretty well, comparatively speaking. But that was not enough for the greedy rich. So they hired political hacks like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, and they rewrote the terms of the deal. Whether it's tax policy or trade relations or labor organizing and negotiating rules or government benefits, the new new deal is the same across the board. Way more for the rich, way less for the rest of us.
Of course, people notice. So the first line of defense was to dumb them down enough such that they would at least be slow to notice, and so that they could be sold bogus solutions. Those policies and that rhetoric have been the second line of defense. "It's the fags and the towelheads and the nigrahs and the feminazis and the wetbacks and the gubmint who've made you miserable", said every regressive from here to the horizon, for decades now. It worked pretty well up until 2006 and 2008, when the folks saying it were in charge and yet still weren't delivering prosperity, and when the schadenfreude of someone else being kicked in the teeth no longer delivered sufficient comfort to placate the ripped-off masses.

Now comes the third line of defense, when all avenues of democratic change and redress are being closed off. Congress and the White House - both nominally controlled by the party of the people - are no less the tools of the plutocracy than when the GOP was sitting in those seats. Now the Supreme Court has likewise been captured, and we should anticipate many more of the kind of rulings we've been seeing, underwriting big state and big corporate power at every turn. Poor Justice John Paul Stevens. What a beautiful anachronism he has become, a vestige of a more humane and more innocent time, back when Democrats were still Democrats, and Republicans still approximated human beings. Now, with the floodgates open, and with more and more judicial positions at the state level being drowned in electoral campaign money, all the doors are being closed, just as planned.

I don't know what form the fourth line of defense will take, but I'm pretty sure it will involve blood. The events in Iran lately or China's Tiananmen Square are probably instructive in this regard.

The third item of note in this Week From Hell was the closing of Air America. I'm pretty close to the last person in the world who will miss this attempt at a progressive answer to the wall of horror over there on radio right. The programming of Air America, with a couple of notable exceptions, was dismal beyond belief, ping-ponging between screeching shriekery and apolitical inanity, and rarely resting for even a moment in-between on anything articulate or informative or thoughtful. You know, if I wanted embarrassing political commentary on my radio, I already had Limbaugh and Hannity and Savage and all those other drooling thugs with ganglion cysts where their brains were supposed to be to choose from.

Still, the idea that it's so hard to inject thoughtful discourse into the national dialogue in any moderately broad-based medium is really depressing, even if in this case it might have been more to do with spectacularly bad management than it was because of spectacularly dumb Americans.

We are in a really bad place now, and it feels as though all the avenues offering even a glimmering of hope and redemption are closing down simultaneously. Progressive commentary is being silenced in the supposed marketplace of ideas, while vitriol-spewing hard-right thugs proliferate like so many Spanish Fly-addled bunny rabbits. Meanwhile, trillions of dollars worth of corporate influence have now been unleashed to further overwhelm the already daunting odds of fair competition in electoral contests, and to fully secure the purchasing of favorable policy for special interests. And this was done by a radical one-vote majority of the Supreme Court, who took it upon themselves to go out and change a hundred years worth of Congressional legislation as well as recent precedents of the very same Court. Just calling balls and strikes? No. More like just balls. These guys went out an bought land, built a stadium, wrote the rules and invented an entirely new game.

Then, of course, there's the so-called progressive party, now in charge. You know, the one that's supposed to provide an alternative, in a democratic system, to the party of death, destruction and deceit. Yeah, that one. Except it turns out that the Democrats are no alternative at all. At least when it comes to policy. If, on the other hand, you like your politicians to be embarrassingly weak, inept and ineffectual, then the latter-day Three Stooges - Barack, Harry and Nancy - offer a refreshing break from the linebacker eyes and the freight train punch of the GOP killers.

But, of course, you always wind-up back there anyhow. What the last thirty years make increasingly clear is that the Democrats have simply become a sort of halfway holiday from the worst excesses of the GOP, a kind of spring break from the serious business of wrecking a superpower. When things get really obnoxious under Republican rule, the Dems come in to provide the requisite comedic interlude for a few years. When the economy is good, they may even be invited to actually stay a bit longer, as Bill Clinton was - provided, of course, that he didn't actually mess with anything that mattered. When money is tight, however, comatose ineptitude as a governing philosophy doesn't play so well, and the duration of the Democratic intermission gets short.

Such is the meaning of another of the dismal events of the past week, the president's State of Potemkin speech. What a piece of crap that was. What an abysmal laundry list of platitudes that will be not be remotely remembered by anybody in ten years or even ten days. This White House seems to have now gone full-on Bill Clinton, trotting out silly quarter-measure policy initiatives that even they don't believe in, begging the rabid right to punk them yet again and again, and studiously avoiding any action or rhetoric that would threaten even half a percent of the take collected every day by the predatory governing interest structure for whom America is not a country so much as a handy aggregation and collection apparatus.

Among other indicators, Obama's fleeting and half-hearted pep talk on health care - merely the signature issue of his administration, mind you, and the item that consumed almost all the country's political oxygen over the last year - made clear that he has now decided to walk away from the issue, though the awkwardly-timed SOTU address made it necessary for him to pretend that he's not. (Remember, just a week or two ago, when they were trying to schedule the address to triumphantly follow his signing of the bill? My, how things have changed, and my, how fast it's all gone down the toilet.) In this respect he's gone Clinton as well. Make an awful attempt at health care reform, write really bad legislation, handle the strategy and politics of it stupidly, wreck yourself and your party in the process, then just walk away and leave the dying corpse there, squirming in the dirt.
Does this turn to Clintonism mean Barack is going to start screwing White House interns, too? Perhaps, because his fiscal politics are Clinton-like, as well. Trying to placate the insatiable right, he leaves untouched a growing military budget that so dwarfs those of the entire rest of the planet combined as to inescapably render America the international sociopath among nations, while practically echoing Clinton's "the era of big government is over" swill with his spending freeze on domestic programs. Hey man, they're only poor people, aren't they? It's only the environment, isn't it? It's just education, right? Who cares? Meanwhile, predictably, the right begins to boo and hiss literally right as the words pass across the president's lips. This is classic Obama: breathtakingly tepid nothingburger supposed solutions to serious political problems that piss off the left because they want him to be going the other way, piss off the middle because they want something that works, and piss off the right because not even troglodytes like John McCain are mentally ill enough to satisfy them anymore.

The sad - and what I think will eventually prove quite ugly - truth is that this administration is simply not up to the requirements of the times. Part of this country's mythology about itself - and not a terribly inaccurate view, in some ways, either - is that each generation of Americans rises to meet the call of history, the challenges of their respective moments. But for a very long time now, this generation has not, and Barack Obama is just the latest in a sorry string of losers who have sought to deceive, distract or simply coast on inertia, while the long-term prospects for the country crumble under our feet.

Obama's peculiar sin is that he - unlike Reagan or Clinton or the pathetic Bush family goobers - is stuck presiding over the national decline at the moment it has slipped into fourth gear, and at a time after which all those other clowns have more or less exhausted the suite of remotely plausible diversionary tactics.

But those difficult circumstances could also have been his opportunity instead. Like the Washingtons, Lincolns, and Roosevelts of the past, he could have risen to the occasion of what history demands here and now. Instead, his is a cowardly presidency, afraid to offend even criminals, stuck in the middle of the road like a deer in the headlights of the eighteen-wheelers barreling down on him, and stupidly believing that if he merely doesn't move at least he will survive his own inaction, whatever happens to the rest of the country. Obama is purely the wrong actor for his time. At a moment when Americans want action, he continues to avoid acting, thinking he is saving himself, even as all the indicators - from tea parties to losing elections in three states he won a year ago to plummeting job approval ratings - scream out for him to do otherwise.

Right before the Massachusetts contest, Barack sent an email urging me to help out the hapless Coakley campaign. He said, "David, If you were fired up in the last election, I need you more fired up in this election". And then he went up there and did a rally for his candidate, telling people that "Bankers don't need another vote in the United States Senate. They've got plenty." And then his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, told us that a key theme of 2010 will be asking voters "whether the people they have in Washington are on the side of protecting the big banks, whether they're on the side of protecting the big oil companies, whether they're on the side of protecting insurance companies or whether they're on the people's side."

Well, Barack, if you're reading this, let me first thank you for your note. How kind of you to write. And, yes, as a matter of fact, I was a bit fired up for the last election. But, no, I wouldn't dream of being fired up for you or your party again this year, and perhaps not ever again any year, as a matter of fact. And you're a big reason for that, my friend. You see - how shall I put this? - bankers don't need another vote in the White House. They've got plenty. And since you've decided to ask folks in 2010 which side the people they have in Washington are on, my answer is that they are overwhelmingly on the side of protecting the big banks, on the side of protecting the big oil companies, and on the side of protecting insurance companies.

Oh, and perhaps you haven't noticed, but you and your party won the last two elections. The 'people we have in Washington' right now are not they, but rather you.

And you're wrecking the country and the world.

And so it was, this Week From Hell, in which the avenues of national redemption closed more completely and more emphatically. There will be no genuine party of the people on our ballots, there to choose in elections. There will be no alternative voice of sanity in the media flinging even toy arrows at the impenetrable wall of national psychosis. There will be no change you can believe in from a president who seems content to be just a slogan in a suit. There will be only more of the same, until the next election, when it will get worse, and then the one after that when it gets worse still. All of which may be but a mere warm-up act for the real fireworks.

Such was the Week From Hell, indeed, except for one final blow.

Howard Zinn left us, shutting down yet another of the few remaining voices of sanity in this deeply unhealthy society. Judging by these events preceding his death, it's not unreasonable to guess why he went when he did.

You can die from a broken heart, can't you?
About author

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website,

Friday, January 29, 2010

Obama vs. House GOP: Best TV ever

The president smoothly mocks House Republicans, in an entertaining U.S. take on the prime minister's question time

Before President Obama started speaking to the House Republican conference's retreat in Baltimore Friday, the GOP presented him with a little book, one that wrapped up all of the policy ideas they've had since he took office that have languished. It had a catchy title: "Better Solutions." The pamphlet may not be an ideal blueprint for governing -- it only takes 30 pages to wrap up everything from economic stimulus to national security to financial reform -- but, as it turned out, it did make for a pretty good prop.

Which Obama demonstrated about an hour into what was easily the most entertaining program C-SPAN (or any cable news network, really) has aired in a long time. "You say, for example, that we've offered a health care plan, and I look up -- this is just [in] the book that you've just provided me, 'Summary of GOP Health Care Reform Bill,'" Obama said, casually flipping through the book as Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., stood by. Price had demanded the president tell Republicans how they should answer constituents who don't like the way the White House says the GOP hasn't offered any ideas. So Obama played it deadpan. '"The GOP plan will lower health care premiums for American families and small businesses, addressing America's number one priority for health reform.' I mean, that's an idea that we all embrace. But specifically it's got to work."

Two days after his feisty State of the Union speech, Obama's trip to the retreat started off slowly, with a speech that could have worked almost anywhere with only a few edits ahead of time. And then the question-and-answer session got started, and the event turned into a spectacle, the kind of thing that hasn't been seen in American politics in years -- and probably won't again, once the people responsible for putting it together go back to look at the video. (Which is too bad, because NBC does have an opening for a 10 p.m. show, and this was a lot more watchable than Leno.) Rarely has his administration done such a good job of bluntly underscoring the differences between what Obama wants to do and what Republicans would prefer if they had power. The president was funny and disarming, but he defended his policies fiercely, and he tiptoed up to the line of calling Republicans liars to their faces.

"We've got to close the gap a little bit between the rhetoric and the reality," he said. "I'm not suggesting that we're going to agree on everything ... but if the way these issues are being presented by the Republicans is that this is some wild-eyed plot to impose huge government in every aspect of our lives, what happens is you guys then don't have a lot of room to negotiate with me. I mean, the fact of the matter is is that many of you, if you voted with the administration on something, are politically vulnerable in your own base, in your own party. You've given yourselves very little room to work in a bipartisan fashion because what you've been telling your constituents is, 'This guy's doing all kinds of crazy stuff that's going to destroy America.'"

The ironic, detached style and professorial wonkiness that has sometimes made it hard for Obama to connect on a visceral level since he took office worked perfectly in Baltimore. And what could have been a dangerous event politically, with Republicans riding high in polls and Obama's agenda on its heels, turned into a presidential seminar, instead. He ridiculed a year's worth of Republican talking points on the stimulus: "The notion that I would somehow resist doing something that cost half as much but would produce twice as many jobs -- why would I resist that? I wouldn't ... It doesn't make sense if somebody could tell me, 'You could do this cheaper and get increased results,' that I wouldn't say, 'Great.' The problem is, I couldn't find credible economists who would back up the claims that you just made." When Rep. Mike Pence tried to push him to commit to "across the board tax cuts," Obama pointed out that the stimulus plan did cut taxes for millions of Americans -- but he couldn't resist twisting the knife a bit. "What you may consider across-the-board tax cuts could be, for example, greater tax cuts for people who are making a billion dollars," he said, tying his answer into the Democratic effort to paint Republicans as friends of the rich without blinking. "I may not agree to a tax cut for Warren Buffett. You may be calling for an across-the-board tax cut for the banking industry right now. I may not agree to that." He mocked the GOP for voting in lockstep against the stimulus bill, then trying to take credit for projects it funded: "A lot of you have gone to appear at ribbon cuttings for the same projects that you voted against." Sixty-eight of them, to be exact, according to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

GOP aides only agreed at the last minute to air the questions, and the lack of political polish made it seem like a freewheeling U.S. version of Britain's prime minister's questions. But on TV, the event played even more one-sided than it probably was in real life. Except Pence, who was on the stage with Obama, the other questions all came from disembodied voices in a dark hotel ballroom. Which worked all right for Republicans like Rep. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, who basically just lobbed a softball about the economy. But when others tried to push Obama, the setup only helped him bat away their questions as they flew out of the darkness.

"What were the old annual deficits under Republicans have now become the monthly deficits under Democrats," said Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas (who Obama kept calling "Jim," for some reason). "You are soon to submit a new budget, Mr. President. Will that new budget, like your old budget, triple the national debt and continue to take us down the path of increasing the cost of government to almost 25 percent of our economy?"

The president laughed. "Jim, with all due respect, I've just got to take this last question as an example of how it's very hard to have the kind of bipartisan work that we're going to do, because the whole question was structured as a talking point for running a campaign," he said. "When we came into office, the deficit was $1.3 trillion. $1.3 trillion. So when you say that suddenly I've got ... a monthly deficit that's higher than the annual deficit left by Republicans, that's factually just not true, and you know it's not true."

The whole thing basically went like that: Republican asks obnoxious question rooted in Glenn Beck-ian talking points; Obama swats it away, makes the questioner look silly, and then smiles at the end. It got so bad, in fact, that Fox News cut away from the event before it was over. Democratic operatives around Washington watching it had pretty much the same reaction: "Where the hell has this guy been?" One source said GOP aides probably wished they'd spoken to John McCain "about what happened to him in the presidential debates" before they broadcast the event. "It's quite a show," a White House official said, apparently going for the same deadpan tone the president was.

Republican aides tried to argue that Obama was struggling to get past his initial talking points, but that was a pretty desultory attempt at spin. By the time Obama was done, and had stayed about 30 minutes past when he was scheduled to leave, Republican leadership was ready to get him out of the room. One GOP lawmaker asked for one more question, and as Obama started to say he was out of time, Pence jumped in, too: "He's gone way over." And with that, Obama took his booklet of GOP policy proposals and left the room -- in much better political shape, possibly, than he was when he walked in.

Luke Russert on MSNBC: "One Republican said to me, off the record, behind closed doors: It was a mistake that we allowed the cameras to roll like that. We should not have done that."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Democracy in America Is a Useful Fiction

By Chris Hedges

Corporate forces, long before the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, carried out a coup d’état in slow motion. The coup is over. We lost. The ruling is one more judicial effort to streamline mechanisms for corporate control. It exposes the myth of a functioning democracy and the triumph of corporate power. But it does not significantly alter the political landscape. The corporate state is firmly cemented in place.

The fiction of democracy remains useful, not only for corporations, but for our bankrupt liberal class. If the fiction is seriously challenged, liberals will be forced to consider actual resistance, which will be neither pleasant nor easy. As long as a democratic facade exists, liberals can engage in an empty moral posturing that requires little sacrifice or commitment. They can be the self-appointed scolds of the Democratic Party, acting as if they are part of the debate and feel vindicated by their cries of protest.

Much of the outrage expressed about the court’s ruling is the outrage of those who prefer this choreographed charade. As long as the charade is played, they do not have to consider how to combat what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin calls our system of “inverted totalitarianism.”

Inverted totalitarianism represents “the political coming of age of corporate power and the political demobilization of the citizenry,” Wolin writes in “Democracy Incorporated.” Inverted totalitarianism differs from classical forms of totalitarianism, which revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader, and finds its expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. The corporate forces behind inverted totalitarianism do not, as classical totalitarian movements do, boast of replacing decaying structures with a new, revolutionary structure. They purport to honor electoral politics, freedom and the Constitution. But they so corrupt and manipulate the levers of power as to make democracy impossible.

Inverted totalitarianism is not conceptualized as an ideology or objectified in public policy. It is furthered by “power-holders and citizens who often seem unaware of the deeper consequences of their actions or inactions,” Wolin writes. But it is as dangerous as classical forms of totalitarianism. In a system of inverted totalitarianism, as this court ruling illustrates, it is not necessary to rewrite the Constitution, as fascist and communist regimes do. It is enough to exploit legitimate power by means of judicial and legislative interpretation. This exploitation ensures that huge corporate campaign contributions are protected speech under the First Amendment. It ensures that heavily financed and organized lobbying by large corporations is interpreted as an application of the people’s right to petition the government. The court again ratified the concept that corporations are persons, except in those cases where the “persons” agree to a “settlement.” Those within corporations who commit crimes can avoid going to prison by paying large sums of money to the government while, according to this twisted judicial reasoning, not “admitting any wrongdoing.” There is a word for this. It is called corruption.

Corporations have 35,000 lobbyists in Washington and thousands more in state capitals that dole out corporate money to shape and write legislation. They use their political action committees to solicit employees and shareholders for donations to fund pliable candidates. The financial sector, for example, spent more than $5 billion on political campaigns, influence peddling and lobbying during the past decade, which resulted in sweeping deregulation, the gouging of consumers, our global financial meltdown and the subsequent looting of the U.S. Treasury. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America spent $26 million last year and drug companies such as Pfizer, Amgen and Eli Lilly kicked in tens of millions more to buy off the two parties. These corporations have made sure our so-called health reform bill will force us to buy their predatory and defective products. The oil and gas industry, the coal industry, defense contractors and telecommunications companies have thwarted the drive for sustainable energy and orchestrated the steady erosion of civil liberties. Politicians do corporate bidding and stage hollow acts of political theater to keep the fiction of the democratic state alive.

There is no national institution left that can accurately be described as democratic. Citizens, rather than participate in power, are allowed to have virtual opinions to preordained questions, a kind of participatory fascism as meaningless as voting on “American Idol.” Mass emotions are directed toward the raging culture wars. This allows us to take emotional stands on issues that are inconsequential to the power elite.

Our transformation into an empire, as happened in ancient Athens and Rome, has seen the tyranny we practice abroad become the tyranny we practice at home. We, like all empires, have been eviscerated by our own expansionism. We utilize weapons of horrific destructive power, subsidize their development with billions in taxpayer dollars, and are the world’s largest arms dealer. And the Constitution, as Wolin notes, is “conscripted to serve as power’s apprentice rather than its conscience.”

“Inverted totalitarianism reverses things,” Wolin writes. “It is politics all of the time but a politics largely untempered by the political. Party squabbles are occasionally on public display, and there is a frantic and continuous politics among factions of the party, interest groups, competing corporate powers, and rival media concerns. And there is, of course, the culminating moment of national elections when the attention of the nation is required to make a choice of personalities rather than a choice between alternatives. What is absent is the political, the commitment to finding where the common good lies amidst the welter of well-financed, highly organized, single-minded interests rabidly seeking governmental favors and overwhelming the practices of representative government and public administration by a sea of cash.”

Hollywood, the news industry and television, all corporate controlled, have become instruments of inverted totalitarianism. They censor or ridicule those who critique or challenge corporate structures and assumptions. They saturate the airwaves with manufactured controversy, whether it is Tiger Woods or the dispute between Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. They manipulate images to make us confuse how we are made to feel with knowledge, which is how Barack Obama became president. And the draconian internal control employed by the Department of Homeland Security, the military and the police over any form of popular dissent, coupled with the corporate media’s censorship, does for inverted totalitarianism what thugs and bonfires of books do in classical totalitarian regimes.

“It seems a replay of historical experience that the bias displayed by today’s media should be aimed consistently at the shredded remains of liberalism,” Wolin writes. “Recall that an element common to most 20th century totalitarianism, whether Fascist or Stalinist, was hostility towards the left. In the United States, the left is assumed to consist solely of liberals, occasionally of ‘the left wing of the Democratic Party,’ never of democrats.”

Liberals, socialists, trade unionists, independent journalists and intellectuals, many of whom were once important voices in our society, have been silenced or targeted for elimination within corporate-controlled academia, the media and government. Wolin, who taught at Berkeley and later at Princeton, is arguably the country’s foremost political philosopher. And yet his book was virtually ignored. This is also why Ralph Nader, Dennis Kucinich and Cynthia McKinney, along with intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, are not given a part in our national discourse.

The uniformity of opinion is reinforced by the skillfully orchestrated mass emotions of nationalism and patriotism, which paints all dissidents as “soft” or “unpatriotic.” The “patriotic” citizen, plagued by fear of job losses and possible terrorist attacks, unfailingly supports widespread surveillance and the militarized state. This means no questioning of the $1 trillion in defense-related spending. It means that the military and intelligence agencies are held above government, as if somehow they are not part of government. The most powerful instruments of state power and control are effectively removed from public discussion. We, as imperial citizens, are taught to be contemptuous of government bureaucracy, yet we stand like sheep before Homeland Security agents in airports and are mute when Congress permits our private correspondence and conversations to be monitored and archived. We endure more state control than at any time in American history.

The civic, patriotic and political language we use to describe ourselves remains unchanged. We pay fealty to the same national symbols and iconography. We find our collective identity in the same national myths. We continue to deify the Founding Fathers. But the America we celebrate is an illusion. It does not exist. Our government and judiciary have no real sovereignty. Our press provides diversion, not information. Our organs of security and power keep us as domesticated and as fearful as most Iraqis. Capitalism, as Karl Marx understood, when it emasculates government, becomes a revolutionary force. And this revolutionary force, best described as inverted totalitarianism, is plunging us into a state of neo-feudalism, perpetual war and severe repression. The Supreme Court decision is part of our transformation by the corporate state from citizens to prisoners.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning correspondent, writes a column published every Monday on Truthdig. His latest book is “Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.”

How idiotic arguments enter the political mainstream

Click to enlarge

Hey, Conan Obama: How About Now? Can You Hear Us Now?

There's only one political party in the entire world that is so inept, cowardly and bungling that it could manage to simultaneously lick the boots of Wall Street bankers and then get blamed by the voters for being flaming revolutionary socialists.

It's the same party that has allowed the opposition to go on a thirty year scorched earth campaign, stealing everything in sight from middle and working class voters, and yet successfully claim to be protecting 'real Americans' from out-of-touch elites.
It's the same party that could run a decorated combat hero against a war evader in 1972, only to be successfully labeled as national security wimps.

Just to be sure, it then did the exact same thing again in 2004.

It's the same party that stood by silently while two presidential elections in a row were stolen away from them.

How 'bout dem Dems, eh?

One year ago today, there was real question as to what could possibly be the future of the Republican Party in America. That's changed a bit now.

And, speaking of 'change', the one kind that Barack Obama did actually deliver this year was not that which most voters had in mind after listening to him use the word incessantly, all throughout 2008. Obama and his colleagues have now managed to bring the future of the Democratic Party into question, just a year after it won two smashing victories in a row.
Personally, I'm not real bothered by that. Today's Democrats are, almost without exception, embarrassing hacks who deserved to get stomped a long time ago.

What really upsets me, however, is what these fools have allowed to be done to the name of progressivism, and to the country.

Barack Obama has now, in just a year's time, become the single most inept president perhaps in all of American history, and certainly in my lifetime. Never has so much political advantage been pissed away so rapidly, and what's more in the context of so much national urgency and crisis. It's astonishing, really, to contemplate how much has been lost in a single year.

It was hilarious, of course, when Michelle Bachmann invoked the Charge of the Light Brigade at a rally against "Obama's" (has he ever really owned it?) health care "initiative" (isn't that too strong a word to use?), quite oblivious to the fact that the actual historical event was one of history's greatest debacles. Obama, on the other hand, seems to be actually reliving the famous cock-up in the flesh. Except, of course, that he doesn't really "charge" at anything. He just talks about things, thinks about things a real long time, defers to others on things, and waits around for things to maybe happen.

This week, though, something actually did happen. Alas, not precisely what the president had in mind, however.

But the election in Massachusetts was only slightly less inevitable than the sun rising in the east each morning. It was the product of an amazing collection of abysmal choices and practices over the last year that has produced a meltdown of equally amazing proportions for this president and his party. It is fitting that it comes on the anniversary of the president's inauguration, a moment filled with so much hope for so many just a year ago.

What has Obama - this Conan O'Brien of presidents - done wrong in order to produce this devastating outcome? The short answer is: Just about everything imaginable.
More specifically:

* He does not lead. Americans, especially in times of crisis, want their daddy-president to pick a point on the horizon and lead them to it. Often - especially in the short term - they don't even care that much which point it is. They will happily follow a president whose policies they oppose if he will but lead.

* And if he will demonstrate some conviction. I have never seen a president so utterly lacking in passion. This man literally doesn't even seem to care about himself, let alone this or that policy issue. He doesn't seem to have any strong opinions on anything, a sure prescription for presidential failure.

* He has therefore let Congress 'lead' on nearly every issue, another surefire mistake. Instead of demanding that they pass real stimulus legislation - which would have really stimulated the economy, big-time, and right now - he let those dickheads on the Hill just load up a big pork party blivet of a bill with all the pet projects they could find, designed purely to benefit their personal standing with the voters at home, rather than to actually produce jobs for Americans. And on health care, his signature issue, he did the same thing. "You guys write it, and I'll sign the check." Could there possibly be a greater prescription for failure than allowing a bunch of the most venal people on the planet to cobble together a 2,000 page monstrosity that entirely serves their interests and those of the people whose campaign bribes put them in office?

* Well, yes, now that you mention it. If you really want to bring your government crashing to the ground, why not spend endless months negotiating with vicious thugs, who will never vote for your legislation anyhow, because they are so entirely devoted to your destruction that they're willing to call you a granny murderer? What a great and winning strategy!

* Another possible strategic move even stupider than deferring to Congress to write major legislation is to cozy up with the least popular people on the planet - including, in fact, the real-life granny killers. Got an economy that is so raw it's leaving thousands in literal peril of losing their lives? Why not draft some legislation to bail-out the people who created that mess and guarantee that they retain their multimillion dollar bonuses?!?! You know, the same folks who are always talking about how great capitalism is and how important it is to take risks! The same ones who are always telling us how awful the government is - the same government that saved them from extinction. Those folks. That's right, bail out with outrageous bonuses the very people who need it least and who caused billions of people around the planet to suffer, while leaving everyone else to fend for themselves! That'll raise your presidential job approval ratings every time! And while you're at it, bring in the much beloved health insurance and pharmaceutical corporate lobbyists, and negotiate a deal with them to craft your high profile health care legislation! What voter can't get behind that?

* Another brilliant presidential tactic is to be such a Mr. Happy Nice Face that you acknowledge no enemies for the country, or even yourself. Not the health care corporate vampires who suck the blood out of Americans from San Diego to Bangor, providing absolutely no value-added health service whatsoever, while denying treatment to deathly ill human beings at every opportunity, all to rake in billions more in profits. Not the reckless pirates on Wall Street who bet all our money on insane gambles that wrecked the global economy, took government bail-out money to survive, and yet are still drowning in bonuses as rewards. Not the Republican Party who spent three decades downsizing the middle class, plunging the country into wars based on lies, deregulating every protection in sight, fattening up corporate cronies, wrecking the environment, trashing the Constitution and polarizing the country politically. And not even a catastrophic climate disaster speeding toward the planet with relentless determination. No! We must all be happy and talk nice! No bad guys. Not even the bad guys can be bad guys.

* While you're at it, if you're trying to run the most failed presidency ever, a really good idea is to campaign in the grandest terms possible, and then deliver squat. You know, talk about bending the arc of history. Invoke Martin Luther King's dream and his struggles and even those of the slaves. Ring the big bells of generational calling. Remind voters every thirty seconds that the country badly needs "Change!". Then get elected and turn around and continue the policies of your hated predecessor in every meaningful policy area. Only with less conviction. People will love that.

* A related brilliant move is to mobilize a giant army of passionate volunteers dedicated to putting you in the White House, and then do nothing with them once you get there, other than taking them completely for granted and never calling upon them to do anything in support of your agenda. Be sure to deflate their enthusiasm in every way possible.

* Even more importantly, if you're trying to run your presidency into the ground you'll definitely want to avoid mobilizing the general public behind your agenda. To make sure that you don't repeat the great legislative victories of FDR or LBJ or (unfortunately) Reagan or (really unfortunately) Little Bush, never use their method of appealing directly to the people. Never express your legislative program as a moral imperative, a great calling to the nation. Never attempt to rally the public behind your cause. Never express any urgency. And never call upon them to demand that Congress pass your bills. Then, you can rest assured they won't!

* And let's take it up a whole 'nuther level, while we're on the subject. A successful president is one who articulates a strong and compelling narrative for the nation. So, in your quest to avoid rising even to mediocrity, be sure to leave a great big gaping canyon where that whole narrative thing is supposed to go. No New Deal, no Great Society, no New Frontier or War on Terror for you. Nope! Just a thousand little projects with little non-solutions to big problems. Hey, why not inject yourself into Cambridge, Massachusetts community police politics while you're at it! Or the New York State Democratic Party gubernatorial primary! Or you could deliberate for weeks about which breed of dog to get for your kids! That's a great use of the president's political capital!

* As long as you're walking away from the grand narrative, why not let the opposition define you as well? Let them say anything imaginable about you, and never respond. You're a socialist! No, you're a fascist! No, you're both! At the same time, no less! You're a granny killer! You're not really even an American! You're taking over the US for the Muslims! You're a massive taxer and spender! You're running around the world, apologizing for America everywhere you go! No worries. Just remember the golden rule, and your presidency is sure to sink: Never engage, never respond, never preempt, never attack, never fight back.

* In general, you'll also want to take the most important power the president has - the bully pulpit - and totally piss it away. Appear everywhere at once, all the time, saying lots of nice words, about a thousand different issues. But never with passion, never with compelling simplicity, never with repetition, and never with urgency. Pretty soon you'll turn being everywhere into being nowhere. Everyone one will tune out your ubiquitous self. Give up the high moral ground which is the most important asset of the office you hold, and you'll make sure that no one ever listens to you anymore. You will persuade the public of nothing. Except that you are irrelevant.

* But you can do better still. Help your enemies, so that they can crush you more effectively! Start by not even realizing they are your enemies. Then, treat them with greater respect than your friends, even though they've run the country over a cliff. Defer to them at every opportunity. Consult with them even as they insult you to your face. Allow them to run Congress, even though they have small minorities in both houses. Never force them to vote against simple, popular legislation. Never call their bluffs. Never associate them with the destruction they've caused. Never label them the treasonous hypocritical liars that they are. Help them to resuscitate the comatose near-corpse of their political party, just before it's about to die, so it can rise up and savage you.

* Another great trick for crashing a presidency is to pick all the wrong priorities to 'fight' for. Imagine, for example, if FDR had substituted for his 'Day of Infamy' speech right after Pearl Harbor a ringing call for an American revolution in cobbler technology! Yes, that's right, in response to the devastating surprise attack by the armed forces of the Empire of Japan, what if the president urgently called upon us all to start making really amazing shoes?! Before it's too late, and we all get blisters on our feet! Similarly, Mr. Obama, your spending the last year on (jive) health care and jetting around the world dipping your toes into foreign policy problems while Americans are losing their jobs and their houses is a fine way to kill your presidency. Guaranteed to work every time.

* And, finally, perhaps the most important thing one can do - and the thing that helps explain many of the other items above - is to adopt really, really pathetic policies. If you're doing a stimulus bill, for example, make sure that it's too little money, not targeted at real stimulative levers in the economy, costs a lot, doesn't kick in for a year or two, gives away about a third of the money to ineffective pet projects for Republican while none of them vote for it anyhow, and leaves the unemployment rate stuck at a miserable ten percent. Or, if you're doing a bail-out of the banks for the purpose of producing the liquidity essential to restarting the economy, let them take bonuses as big as they want, and don't actually require that they loan out to anyone the money you've given them. Or, how about spending nearly all your political capital on 'health care' legislation, which is really an insurance company boondoggle bill instead? That's really what the people want, eh? No wonder Obama's not out there writing the narrative, fighting the good fight or crushing his enemies. Even he can't get excited about his own priorities, so extraordinarily abysmal are they.

All of this represents the best prescription I can imagine for wrecking a presidency, and Obama has followed it with exacting precision. Indeed, doing so would appear to be his only real passion. It's almost as if he were a Republican sleeper politician in some party politics version of the Manchurian Candidate, planted to arise on cue and destroy the Democratic Party from within.
And thus - while anything's possible, of course - I am hard pressed to see how the Obama administration is anything but finished. Consider his options from here.

He could turn to the right, like Clinton did in 1994. But the first problem is that he's already there. If you look carefully at his policies, he is basically running George Bush's third term. Regressives (conveniently) forget that. They call him weak on national security, even while he dramatically escalates the war in Afghanistan, hardly draws down in Iraq, breaks his own promise to close Gitmo, and smashes through the $700 billion mark in military spending for the first time, not even counting Afghanistan's costs. They ignore his Bush-cloned policies on state secrets, renditions, executive power and other civil liberties issues. They forget that Bush's health care bill was far more socialistic and far more fiscally irresponsible than Obama's, and that his bail-outs and stimulus actions were almost identical. So, in short, for Obama to turn to starboard at this point would literally require him to outflank the GOP to its right. Moreover, the Limbaughs and Becks and Palins would still excoriate him, no matter what. Worse still, such policies would only make the lives of ordinary Americans a lot worse, just as they have been doing for thirty years now. So what could be gained by a turn to the right?

Second, he could go small-bore, as Clinton also did in the 1990s. But, of course, these aren't the 1990s. FDR didn't win four terms during a Great Depression and a world war by focusing on school uniforms and V-chips. This is not the 1930s or 1940s, but it's close. People are hurting, frightened and angry. Obama is suffering badly already because he is not addressing their very tangible concerns. More of the same policy-wise will produce more of the same politically. Going this route, he'd be lucky if the public was kind enough to let him finish his single term as a James Buchanan wannabe, then go home.

The obvious solution, of course, would be a sharp turn to the left. Go where the real solutions are. Fight the good fight. Call liars 'liars' and thieves 'thieves'. Do the people's business. Become their advocate against the monsters bleeding them dry. Create jobs. Build infrastructure. Do real national health care. End the wars. Dramatically slash military spending. Produce actual educational reform. Launch a massive green energy/jobs program. Get serious about global warming. Kick ass on campaign finance reform. Fight for gay rights. Restore the New Deal era regulatory framework and expand it. Restore a fair taxation structure. Rewrite trade agreements that undermine American jobs. Rebuild unions. Fill the spate of vacancies in the federal judiciary, and load those seats up with progressives. Rally the public to demand that Congress act on your agenda. Humiliate the regressives in and out of the GOP for their abysmal sell-out policies.

All of this could be done, and most of it would be very popular, especially if it was backed by an aggressive and righteously angry Oval Office advocate for the people who knew how to use the bully pulpit to shape the narrative, to market ideas, and to mobilize public support.

But I doubt Obama has anything like the constitution for that sort of presidency. I think his personal disposition is so strongly controlling of his politics that he would rather preside as a three year lame-duck over a failed one-term presidency, than actually throw an elbow or two and make anyone uncomfortable. Think how unpleasant it would be.

Moreover, by blundering during the only chance he'll ever have at introducing his presidency, he's now created an additional set of problems for himself which may well be insurmountable, even if he were to now try to live up to his campaign billing. He needs Democratic votes in Congress to do much of anything, but they're all focused on the looming tsunami of next November. The very same people who might have swallowed hard and reluctantly followed the lead of inspirational new president Obama one year ago, today will join everyone else in the world and spit in the eye of useless, feeble, washed-up Barack. He's got zero leverage over his own party in Congress now. As for the public, it's gonna be pretty hard to now market himself as the great enemy of the people's enemies, when he's just finished a year of making secret sweetheart deals that benefit Wall Street bankers, health insurance pirates, and pharmaceutical predators, all while leaving his own base and the public he's supposed to be serving out in the rain. Politicians can reinvent themselves, but you need time and there are certain limits of plausibility that cannot be ignored, any more than you can ignore the laws of physics.Of course, I don't give a shit about Barack Obama anymore, other than my desire that really ugly things happen to him as payment in kind for the grandest act of betrayal we've seen since Benedict Arnold did his thing. But what about the country?

Not so good there, either, I'm afraid. What happens when you have two parties to choose from, and one of them wrecks the country with dramatically evil policies so radical even backward America hates them, but then you turn to the other party, which spends an entire year on the campaign trail promising change, only to turn out nearly identical to the first lot when in government? What do you do?

One option is to find another party. To some extent that is happening, but absolutely not where it should be. The tea partyers are the 'alternative' vision for salvation in today's America. (Very) unfortunately, they are not alternative in any sense, have almost no coherent vision whatsoever, and - as the possible third right-wing party for voters to choose from, out of three, obviously offer zero salvation whatsoever. All the tea party lunatics seem to know is that they don't like taxes and they don't like federal spending. But they can't even tell you what they'd cut if they actually controlled the government. My guess is that it would be nothing, just like the Republicans before them, or else they'd slash entitlement spending, which would surely make them one of the flashiest flashes ever to get royally panned by the public.

The other option, which the voters are now exercising, is to continue a process begun in 2006 of voting for the party which is not the party in power. Today, that means Republicans, as witnessed in Virginia, New Jersey and now Massachusetts. The absurdity of this, of course, is that it was these exact same people who created this astonishingly thorough mess we find ourselves in. What is Mitch McConnell or John Boehner or Sarah Palin going to do for Americans who don't have jobs? Cut taxes they no longer pay (and thus also further increase the national debt, by the way)? What will they do for those same folks who've lost their health insurance? Kill Democratic plans, even when they're nothing but corporate giveaways anyhow?

Americans will simply be more sick, more broke and more unemployed two, four or six years from now than they are at this moment, if they put the Republicans back in control of the government.

Of course, there's one other possibility, which is that this time the Cheney Party goes balls-to-the-wall, bringing down on our heads a full-on fascist dictatorship, serving corporate interests in total, and likely launching a couple of good wars abroad to complement the complete repression of dissent and freedom of expression at home.

Ridiculous? I try pretty hard every day - and it takes some work - to keep my most apocalyptic totalitarian nightmares for this country in check. But think about this chronological sequence for a second: The Democrats get killed in November for doing nothing while the public suffers. But they are still seen as the party in power in 2012, so they get killed even worse, with Obama sent packing and Palin or her equivalent moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. But the new radical GOP regime's policies are even more detrimental to voters than Bush's or Obama's. Maybe the public is distracted for a year or two by some bullshit foreign policy 'crisis' or another, but pretty soon they're getting real restless. After about six years now of suffering badly, they're getting real surly, and 'anti-incumbent' doesn't begin to describe the mood of the country. Now they really want some serious change.

Of course, anything can happen - but which part of that sequence seems improbable? And if the answer is none, then the salient question becomes: What does the regime do at that point, faced with an angry mob? What are the Dick Cheneys and Sarah Palins of this world committed to? What are they capable of when pressed?

I don't think those questions really require a response. I think we all know pretty well the answers.

This is the country that Obama - the great Hope guy - is bequeathing us.
Dante said "The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in times of great moral crises maintain their neutrality".

Better stock up on the mist sprayers, Barack.
About author:

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. More of his work can be found at his website,

I blame cable TV

How hack party consultants came to replace real liberals and conservatives in the 24/7 media universe

By Michael Lind
Jan. 19, 2010

Why are progressivism and conservatism all but unrepresented on American television? The question might seem absurd. Aren't there entire television channels, like Fox and MSNBC, identified with conservative and progressive viewpoints? Aren't there several million left-wing or right-wing talking heads on TV, with new pundits hatching in the factory farm every day?

Here's the problem: Most of the representatives of progressivism you see on TV are not really progressives. They are what might be called "Democratists." Most publicly prominent conservatives are not principled conservatives at all. They are "Republicanists."

Whereas progressives and conservatives — and libertarians and democratic socialists, to say nothing of fascists and Islamists — analyze politics and public policy from the standpoint of a more or less consistent view of the world, Democratists and Republicanists are P.R. agents for one of the two parties. The job of a Democratist is to defend whatever the Democratic Party did today, whether or not it is compatible with progressive principles. The job of a Republicanist is to defend whatever the Republican Party did today, whether or not it is compatible with conservative principles. The partisan spinmeisters who use television to raise their profiles can be rewarded with jobs as presidential speechwriters or White House press secretaries, or with bestselling books and TV shows of their own.

'Twas not always thus. Let's travel back in time to the 1950s and 1960s, when there were only three networks. In both Congress and the executive branch, there was a seemingly monolithic bipartisan establishment. In Congress, this took the form of the dominant "conservative coalition" of moderate Republicans and conservative Southern Democrats (like today's Blue Dogs, only more prehistoric). The executive branch of both parties, along with the prestige press, was socially more upscale than Congress, staffed by people who prepped at the same Northeastern schools, went to the same Ivy League universities, wore the same horn-rimmed glasses, and thought the same complacently establishmentarian thoughts. If you doubt me, watch old black-and-white "Meet the Press" episodes, where the Horn-Rimmed People drone on to each other about current affairs in vaguely British, "Long Island lockjaw" accents.

William F. Buckley Jr.'s movement conservatives, the libertarian movement, and the New Left all rebelled in different ways against the sclerotic bipartisan establishment. In the 1950s and 1960s their dissent was pretty much confined to small-circulation magazines like National Review and Dissent. The real breakthrough was Buckley's "Firing Line" program on PBS, followed by the appearance on Sunday television of George Will. Buckley and Will both looked and sounded like Horn-Rimmed People, but their thinking broke with the postwar consensus. The old networks soon balanced them with overtly liberal commentators — Jane Alexander vs. James Kilpatrick. Gore Vidal debated Norman Mailer on "The Dick Cavett Show." Genuine intellectuals and authors occasionally got on Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show. In recent years, Bill Moyers has kept this kind of intelligent programming alive in an increasingly hostile media environment.

In hindsight, the period from the 1970s to the 1990s was the golden age of political ideology on TV. In the post-consensus era, the people whom the network bookers selected to represent the right and the left were mostly editors or writers for overtly ideological magazines, or else academics. Neither the conservative nor the liberal public intellectuals thought of themselves as professional flacks for one of the two parties. I knew both Bill Buckley and John Kenneth Galbraith, and neither would have hesitated to criticize a president of the party each preferred — say, Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter.

From my vantage point in journalism, I watched all this change in the 1990s. At the beginning of the '90s, the "bookers" or producers who decide who will go on television were still turning to political-magazine editors and academics when they needed a liberal or conservative voice. By 2000, however, with few exceptions, the bookers were booking partisan pollsters, campaign consultants, and other career Democratic and Republican political operatives to represent the right and the left.

Why did this happen? Partly it was the result of the increasing ideological coherence of the two parties, with the decline of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans. But I think the main reason for the replacement of ideological intellectuals by partisan spin doctors was the spread of cable television. Before cable, if you were interested in politics, you read political magazines — the Nation, National Review, the New Republic. Only a couple of hours on Sunday morning TV on the three broadcast networks were devoted to political debate, and often the editors or contributors of the political magazines were tapped as the gladiators.

The rise of CNN and other 24-hour all-news channels had two effects. First, it greatly multiplied the slots for commentators. Like housing and finance during the bubble years, television punditry was a growth industry in the 1990s and 2000s. Political magazine editors like Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor of the Nation, and Bill Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, still make it onto television, but they are easily lost among the swarming multitudes of talking heads, many of them recent college graduates who spend their days waiting by the phone for a summons to the TV studio to spout out their party's e-mailed daily talking points in 30 seconds flat.
In addition to multiplying the number of commentators, cable news channels restricted the scope of commentary to two subjects: immediate reactions to breaking news, and "who's up, who's down in the polls" handicapping. In this age of narrowcasting, the news junkies who follow cable TV and the blogs define politics as partisan gamesmanship. They don't want to know whether the healthcare plan makes sense or not. They want to know whether its passage will help or hurt Democrats in November. For these viewers, politics is a game, as the stock market is for the viewers of Bloomberg and CNBC.

In this new media universe, where cable news channels are forced to fill up an entire day of programming with talking heads between news segments, the producers and bookers naturally turn to experts in daily polling — the dreary, interchangeable "Democratic strategists" and "Republican strategists" who populate cable news and the equivalent blogs. I don't blame the producers. They are trying to make money for their corporations in a battered and declining industry. Having lost the general audience of yesteryear, they are feeding their smaller, more homogeneous audience of political junkies the drugs that the junkies want.

For economic reasons, then, genuine public intellectuals like Buckley and Galbraith probably could not get on TV today. Bill Buckley was fond of quoting the philosopher Eric Voegelin to the effect that liberals were trying to "immanentize the eschaton." Use six-dollar words like those on TV today, and you'll never be invited back. And I can only imagine the icy silence that would have followed, if a chirpy news anchor had asked Professor Galbraith what he thought of the latest poll in the Massachusetts Senate race.

Here we are, then, in the age of political narrowcasting, in which, apart from the occasional ideological blogger, most of the "liberals" and "conservatives" alike are hack political consultants or pollsters who live and work inside the Beltway. They know nothing about the wonky details of public policy and even less about political philosophy. But they know who's gaining or sinking in the polls, and they do their assigned job of spinning the polling data to help their party and hurt the rival party. There are plenty of progressive and conservative and libertarian thinkers and activists — more so today than ever. And there is no reason to believe they are any less talented than their predecessors. But they can't get on TV, and without TV exposure, even in the age of the Internet, their influence is limited.

If my analysis is correct, then the near-extinction on TV of political intellectuals, progressive and conservative alike, and the on-screen multiplication of partisan "Democratist" and "Republicanist" P.R. flacks is not the result of a sinister conspiracy on the part of media plutocrats. It is simply the result of narrowcasting. The obsessive news junkies would rather watch Terry McAuliffe debate Dick Morris the 10,000th time than watch a progressive philosopher debate a conservative theorist about the purpose of markets or the meaning of democracy. Important debates about policy and philosophy go on, but in shrinking print magazines and small-readership blogs and subscription-only academic journals.
It may be that the Age of Intellectual Politics on television was a brief two- or three-decade aberration, between the Age of Horn-Rimmed Consensus and the Age of Partisan Spin. I wonder, though, if the very narrowcasting that destroyed the first (and to date only) era of intelligent televised political debate might help revive it.

If narrowcasting is the future, then why can't there be a progressive channel? And a paleoconservative channel? And populist, and libertarian, and democratic socialist channels, too? I don't mean partisan channels, like Fox and MSNBC, populated by robotic agents of the Democratic and Republican parties justifying whatever the party leaders did or said in the previous 24 hours. I mean channels where people who belong to an extrapartisan political-intellectual movement discuss the issues of the day from their perspective, with little regard for whether it helps or hurts one of the two party machines in the next election.

I'm not a libertarian, but I'd rather watch David Boaz and William Niskanen discuss economic policy from a libertarian perspective than watch Lanny Davis and Dick Morris trade talking points. I'm not an isolationist, but late at night, flipping through the channels, I'd probably stop to watch smart isolationists like Bill Kauffman make the case against American overseas involvement. I'm not a socialist, but if there were a Dissent channel featuring Michael Walzer and his allies, I'd watch it, if only to exercise my mind and challenge myself. (If there were a neoconservative channel, featuring Dick Cheney and Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, I'd keep surfing.)

If the audiences for such political worldview channels were too low for cable TV companies, then maybe streaming video from Web sites could achieve the same outcome. The point is that principled political discussion needs to make the leap from the dying print media and blogs to the audiovisual realm. If it doesn't, then American public discourse in what, despite hype about the blogosphere, remains the most influential medium may continue to consist of fake wrestling matches pitting professional Democratists against professional Republicanists. Over and over and over again.

Obama's Big Sellout

The president has packed his economic team with Wall Street insiders intent on turning the bailout into an all-out giveaway

MATT TAIBBI Dec 09, 2009

Barack Obama ran for president as a man of the people, standing up to Wall Street as the global economy melted down in that fateful fall of 2008. He pushed a tax plan to soak the rich, ripped NAFTA for hurting the middle class and tore into John McCain for supporting a bankruptcy bill that sided with wealthy bankers "at the expense of hardworking Americans." Obama may not have run to the left of Samuel Gompers or Cesar Chavez, but it's not like you saw him on the campaign trail flanked by bankers from Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. What inspired supporters who pushed him to his historic win was the sense that a genuine outsider was finally breaking into an exclusive club, that walls were being torn down, that things were, for lack of a better or more specific term, changing.

Then he got elected.

What's taken place in the year since Obama won the presidency has turned out to be one of the most dramatic political about-faces in our history. Elected in the midst of a crushing economic crisis brought on by a decade of orgiastic deregulation and unchecked greed, Obama had a clear mandate to rein in Wall Street and remake the entire structure of the American economy. What he did instead was ship even his most marginally progressive campaign advisers off to various bureaucratic Siberias, while packing the key economic positions in his White House with the very people who caused the crisis in the first place. This new team of bubble-fattened ex-bankers and laissez-faire intellectuals then proceeded to sell us all out, instituting a massive, trickle-up bailout and systematically gutting regulatory reform from the inside.

How could Obama let this happen? Is he just a rookie in the political big leagues, hoodwinked by Beltway old-timers? Or is the vacillating, ineffectual servant of banking interests we've been seeing on TV this fall who Obama really is?

Whatever the president's real motives are, the extensive series of loophole-rich financial "reforms" that the Democrats are currently pushing may ultimately do more harm than good. In fact, some parts of the new reforms border on insanity, threatening to vastly amplify Wall Street's political power by institutionalizing the taxpayer's role as a welfare provider for the financial-services industry. At one point in the debate, Obama's top economic advisers demanded the power to award future bailouts without even going to Congress for approval — and without providing taxpayers a single dime in equity on the deals.

How did we get here? It started just moments after the election — and almost nobody noticed.

'Just look at the timeline of the Citigroup deal," says one leading Democratic consultant. "Just look at it. It's fucking amazing. Amazing! And nobody said a thing about it."

Barack Obama was still just the president-elect when it happened, but the revolting and inexcusable $306 billion bailout that Citigroup received was the first major act of his presidency. In order to grasp the full horror of what took place, however, one needs to go back a few weeks before the actual bailout — to November 5th, 2008, the day after Obama's election.

That was the day the jubilant Obama campaign announced its transition team. Though many of the names were familiar — former Bill Clinton chief of staff John Podesta, long-time Obama confidante Valerie Jarrett — the list was most notable for who was not on it, especially on the economic side. Austan Goolsbee, a University of Chicago economist who had served as one of Obama's chief advisers during the campaign, didn't make the cut. Neither did Karen Kornbluh, who had served as Obama's policy director and was instrumental in crafting the Democratic Party's platform. Both had emphasized populist themes during the campaign: Kornbluh was known for pushing Democrats to focus on the plight of the poor and middle class, while Goolsbee was an aggressive critic of Wall Street, declaring that AIG executives should receive "a Nobel Prize — for evil."

But come November 5th, both were banished from Obama's inner circle — and replaced with a group of Wall Street bankers. Leading the search for the president's new economic team was his close friend and Harvard Law classmate Michael Froman, a high-ranking executive at Citigroup. During the campaign, Froman had emerged as one of Obama's biggest fundraisers, bundling $200,000 in contributions and introducing the candidate to a host of heavy hitters — chief among them his mentor Bob Rubin, the former co-chairman of Goldman Sachs who served as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton. Froman had served as chief of staff to Rubin at Treasury, and had followed his boss when Rubin left the Clinton administration to serve as a senior counselor to Citigroup (a massive new financial conglomerate created by deregulatory moves pushed through by Rubin himself).

Incredibly, Froman did not resign from the bank when he went to work for Obama: He remained in the employ of Citigroup for two more months, even as he helped appoint the very people who would shape the future of his own firm. And to help him pick Obama's economic team, Froman brought in none other than Jamie Rubin, who happens to be Bob Rubin's son. At the time, Jamie's dad was still earning roughly $15 million a year working for Citigroup, which was in the midst of a collapse brought on in part because Rubin had pushed the bank to invest heavily in mortgage-backed CDOs and other risky instruments.

Now here's where it gets really interesting. It's three weeks after the election. You have a lame-duck president in George W. Bush — still nominally in charge, but in reality already halfway to the golf-and-O'Doul's portion of his career and more than happy to vacate the scene. Left to deal with the still-reeling economy are lame-duck Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a former head of Goldman Sachs, and New York Fed chief Timothy Geithner, who served under Bob Rubin in the Clinton White House. Running Obama's economic team are a still-employed Citigroup executive and the son of another Citigroup executive, who himself joined Obama's transition team that same month.

So on November 23rd, 2008, a deal is announced in which the government will bail out Rubin's messes at Citigroup with a massive buffet of taxpayer-funded cash and guarantees. It is a terrible deal for the government, almost universally panned by all serious economists, an outrage to anyone who pays taxes. Under the deal, the bank gets $20 billion in cash, on top of the $25 billion it had already received just weeks before as part of the Troubled Asset Relief Program. But that's just the appetizer. The government also agrees to charge taxpayers for up to $277 billion in losses on troubled Citi assets, many of them those toxic CDOs that Rubin had pushed Citi to invest in. No Citi executives are replaced, and few restrictions are placed on their compensation. It's the sweetheart deal of the century, putting generations of working-stiff taxpayers on the hook to pay off Bob Rubin's fuck-up-rich tenure at Citi. "If you had any doubts at all about the primacy of Wall Street over Main Street," former labor secretary Robert Reich declares when the bailout is announced, "your doubts should be laid to rest."

It is bad enough that one of Bob Rubin's former protégés from the Clinton years, the New York Fed chief Geithner, is intimately involved in the negotiations, which unsurprisingly leave the Federal Reserve massively exposed to future Citi losses. But the real stunner comes only hours after the bailout deal is struck, when the Obama transition team makes a cheerful announcement: Timothy Geithner is going to be Barack Obama's Treasury secretary!

Geithner, in other words, is hired to head the U.S. Treasury by an executive from Citigroup — Michael Froman — before the ink is even dry on a massive government giveaway to Citigroup that Geithner himself was instrumental in delivering. In the annals of brazen political swindles, this one has to go in the all-time Fuck-the-Optics Hall of Fame.

Wall Street loved the Citi bailout and the Geithner nomination so much that the Dow immediately posted its biggest two-day jump since 1987, rising 11.8 percent. Citi shares jumped 58 percent in a single day, and JP Morgan Chase, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley soared more than 20 percent, as Wall Street embraced the news that the government's bailout generosity would not die with George W. Bush and Hank Paulson. "Geithner assures a smooth transition between the Bush administration and that of Obama, because he's already co-managing what's happening now," observed Stephen Leeb, president of Leeb Capital Management.

Left unnoticed, however, was the fact that Geithner had been hired by a sitting Citigroup executive who still had a big bonus coming despite his proximity to Obama. In January 2009, just over a month after the bailout, Citigroup paid Froman a year-end bonus of $2.25 million. But as outrageous as it was, that payoff would prove to be chump change for the banker crowd, who were about to get everything they wanted — and more — from the new president.

The irony of Bob Rubin: He's an unapologetic arch-capitalist demagogue whose very career is proof that a free-market meritocracy is a myth. Much like Alan Greenspan, a staggeringly incompetent economic forecaster who was worshipped by four decades of politicians because he once dated Barbara Walters, Rubin has been held in awe by the American political elite for nearly 20 years despite having fucked up virtually every project he ever got his hands on. He went from running Goldman Sachs (1990-1992) to the Clinton White House (1993-1999) to Citigroup (1999-2009), leaving behind a trail of historic gaffes that somehow boosted his stature every step of the way.

As Treasury secretary under Clinton, Rubin was the driving force behind two monstrous deregulatory actions that would be primary causes of last year's financial crisis: the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (passed specifically to legalize the Citigroup megamerger) and the deregulation of the derivatives market. Having set that time bomb, Rubin left government to join Citi, which promptly expressed its gratitude by giving him $126 million in compensation over the next eight years (they don't call it bribery in this country when they give you the money post factum). After urging management to amp up its risky investments in toxic vehicles, a strategy that very nearly destroyed the company, Rubin blamed Citi's board for his screw-ups and complained that he had been underpaid to boot. "I bet there's not a single year where I couldn't have gone somewhere else and made more," he said.

Despite being perhaps more responsible for last year's crash than any other single living person — his colossally stupid decisions at both the highest levels of government and the management of a private financial superpower make him unique — Rubin was the man Barack Obama chose to build his White House around.

There are four main ways to be connected to Bob Rubin: through Goldman Sachs, the Clinton administration, Citigroup and, finally, the Hamilton Project, a think tank Rubin spearheaded under the auspices of the Brookings Institute to promote his philosophy of balanced budgets, free trade and financial deregulation. The team Obama put in place to run his economic policy after his inauguration was dominated by people who boasted connections to at least one of these four institutions — so much so that the White House now looks like a backstage party for an episode of Bob Rubin, This Is Your Life!

At Treasury, there is Geithner, who worked under Rubin in the Clinton years. Serving as Geithner's "counselor" — a made-up post not subject to Senate confirmation — is Lewis Alexander, the former chief economist of Citigroup, who advised Citi back in 2007 that the upcoming housing crash was nothing to worry about. Two other top Geithner "counselors" — Gene Sperling and Lael Brainard — worked under Rubin at the National Economic Council, the key group that coordinates all economic policymaking for the White House.

As director of the NEC, meanwhile, Obama installed economic czar Larry Summers, who had served as Rubin's protégé at Treasury. Just below Summers is Jason Furman, who worked for Rubin in the Clinton White House and was one of the first directors of Rubin's Hamilton Project. The appointment of Furman — a persistent advocate of free-trade agreements like NAFTA and the author of droolingly pro-globalization reports with titles like "Walmart: A Progressive Success Story" — provided one of the first clues that Obama had only been posturing when he promised crowds of struggling Midwesterners during the campaign that he would renegotiate NAFTA, which facilitated the flight of blue-collar jobs to other countries. "NAFTA's shortcomings were evident when signed, and we must now amend the agreement to fix them," Obama declared. A few months after hiring Furman to help shape its economic policy, however, the White House quietly quashed any talk of renegotiating the trade deal. "The president has said we will look at all of our options, but I think they can be addressed without having to reopen the agreement," U.S. Trade Representative Ronald Kirk told reporters in a little-publicized conference call last April.

The announcement was not so surprising, given who Obama hired to serve alongside Furman at the NEC: management consultant Diana Farrell, who worked under Rubin at Goldman Sachs. In 2003, Farrell was the author of an infamous paper in which she argued that sending American jobs overseas might be "as beneficial to the U.S. as to the destination country, probably more so."

Joining Summers, Furman and Farrell at the NEC is Froman, who by then had been formally appointed to a unique position: He is not only Obama's international finance adviser at the National Economic Council, he simultaneously serves as deputy national security adviser at the National Security Council. The twin posts give Froman a direct line to the president, putting him in a position to coordinate Obama's international economic policy during a crisis. He'll have help from David Lipton, another joint appointee to the economics and security councils who worked with Rubin at Treasury and Citigroup, and from Jacob Lew, a former Citi colleague of Rubin's whom Obama named as deputy director at the State Department to focus on international finance.

Over at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which is supposed to regulate derivatives trading, Obama appointed Gary Gensler, a former Goldman banker who worked under Rubin in the Clinton White House. Gensler had been instrumental in helping to pass the infamous Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which prevented regulation of derivative instruments like CDOs and credit-default swaps that played such a big role in cratering the economy last year. And as head of the powerful Office of Management and Budget, Obama named Peter Orszag, who served as the first director of Rubin's Hamilton Project. Orszag once succinctly summed up the project's ideology as a sort of liberal spin on trickle-down Reaganomics: "Market competition and globalization generate significant economic benefits."

Taken together, the rash of appointments with ties to Bob Rubin may well represent the most sweeping influence by a single Wall Street insider in the history of government. "Rather than having a team of rivals, they've got a team of Rubins," says Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation. "You see that in policy choices that have resuscitated — but not reformed — Wall Street."While Rubin's allies and acolytes got all the important jobs in the Obama administration, the academics and progressives got banished to semi-meaningless, even comical roles. Kornbluh was rewarded for being the chief policy architect of Obama's meteoric rise by being outfitted with a pith helmet and booted across the ocean to Paris, where she now serves as America's never-again-to-be-seen-on-TV ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Goolsbee, meanwhile, was appointed as staff director of the President's Economic Recovery Advisory Board, a kind of dumping ground for Wall Street critics who had assisted Obama during the campaign; one top Democrat calls the panel "Siberia."

Joining Goolsbee as chairman of the PERAB gulag is former Fed chief Paul Volcker, who back in March 2008 helped candidate Obama write a speech declaring that the deregulatory efforts of the Eighties and Nineties had "excused and even embraced an ethic of greed, corner-cutting, insider dealing, things that have always threatened the long-term stability of our economic system." That speech met with rapturous applause, but the commission Obama gave Volcker to manage is so toothless that it didn't even meet for the first time until last May. The lone progressive in the White House, economist Jared Bernstein, holds the impressive-sounding title of chief economist and national policy adviser — except that the man he is advising is Joe Biden, who seems more interested in foreign policy than financial reform.

The significance of all of these appointments isn't that the Wall Street types are now in a position to provide direct favors to their former employers. It's that, with one or two exceptions, they collectively offer a microcosm of what the Democratic Party has come to stand for in the 21st century. Virtually all of the Rubinites brought in to manage the economy under Obama share the same fundamental political philosophy carefully articulated for years by the Hamilton Project: Expand the safety net to protect the poor, but let Wall Street do whatever it wants. "Bob Rubin, these guys, they're classic limousine liberals," says David Sirota, a former Democratic strategist. "These are basically people who have made shitloads of money in the speculative economy, but they want to call themselves good Democrats because they're willing to give a little more to the poor. That's the model for this Democratic Party: Let the rich do their thing, but give a fraction more to everyone else."

Even the members of Obama's economic team who have spent most of their lives in public office have managed to make small fortunes on Wall Street. The president's economic czar, Larry Summers, was paid more than $5.2 million in 2008 alone as a managing director of the hedge fund D.E. Shaw, and pocketed an additional $2.7 million in speaking fees from a smorgasbord of future bailout recipients, including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup. At Treasury, Geithner's aide Gene Sperling earned a staggering $887,727 from Goldman Sachs last year for performing the punch-line-worthy service of "advice on charitable giving." Sperling's fellow Treasury appointee, Mark Patterson, received $637,492 as a full-time lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, and another top Geithner aide, Lee Sachs, made more than $3 million working for a New York hedge fund called Mariner Investment Group. The list goes on and on. Even Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, who has been out of government for only 30 months of his adult life, managed to collect $18 million during his private-sector stint with a Wall Street firm called Wasserstein-Perella.

The point is that an economic team made up exclusively of callous millionaire-assholes has absolutely zero interest in reforming the gamed system that made them rich in the first place. "You can't expect these people to do anything other than protect Wall Street," says Rep. Cliff Stearns, a Republican from Florida. That thinking was clear from Obama's first address to Congress, when he stressed the importance of getting Americans to borrow like crazy again. "Credit is the lifeblood of the economy," he declared, pledging "the full force of the federal government to ensure that the major banks that Americans depend on have enough confidence and enough money." A president elected on a platform of change was announcing, in so many words, that he planned to change nothing fundamental when it came to the economy. Rather than doing what FDR had done during the Great Depression and institute stringent new rules to curb financial abuses, Obama planned to institutionalize the policy, firmly established during the Bush years, of keeping a few megafirms rich at the expense of everyone else.

Obama hasn't always toed the Rubin line when it comes to economic policy. Despite being surrounded by a team that is powerfully opposed to deficit spending — balanced budgets and deficit reduction have always been central to the Rubin way of thinking — Obama came out of the gate with a huge stimulus plan designed to kick-start the economy and address the job losses brought on by the 2008 crisis. "You have to give him credit there," says Sen. Bernie Sanders, an advocate of using government resources to address unemployment. "It's a very significant piece of legislation, and $787 billion is a lot of money."

But whatever jobs the stimulus has created or preserved so far — 640,329, according to an absurdly precise and already debunked calculation by the White House — the aid that Obama has provided to real people has been dwarfed in size and scope by the taxpayer money that has been handed over to America's financial giants. "They spent $75 billion on mortgage relief, but come on — look at how much they gave Wall Street," says a leading Democratic strategist. Neil Barofsky, the inspector general charged with overseeing TARP, estimates that the total cost of the Wall Street bailouts could eventually reach $23.7 trillion. And while the government continues to dole out big money to big banks, Obama and his team of Rubinites have done almost nothing to reform the warped financial system responsible for imploding the global economy in the first place.

The push for reform seemed to get off to a promising start. In the House, the charge was led by Rep. Barney Frank, the outspoken chair of the House Financial Services Committee, who emerged during last year's Bush bailouts as a sharp-tongued critic of Wall Street. Back when Obama was still a senator, he and Frank even worked together to introduce a populist bill targeting executive compensation. Last spring, with the economy shattered, Frank began to hold hearings on a host of reforms, crafted with significant input from the White House, that initially contained some very good elements. There were measures to curb abusive credit-card lending, prevent banks from charging excessive fees, force publicly traded firms to conduct meaningful risk assessment and allow shareholders to vote on executive compensation. There were even measures to crack down on risky derivatives and to bar firms like AIG from picking their own regulators.

Then the committee went to work — and the loopholes started to appear.

The most notable of these came in the proposal to regulate derivatives like credit-default swaps. Even Gary Gensler, the former Goldmanite whom Obama put in charge of commodities regulation, was pushing to make these normally obscure investments more transparent, enabling regulators and investors to identify speculative bubbles sooner. But in August, a month after Gensler came out in favor of reform, Geithner slapped him down by issuing a 115-page paper called "Improvements to Regulation of Over-the-Counter Derivatives Markets" that called for a series of exemptions for "end users" — i.e., almost all of the clients who buy derivatives from banks like Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Even more stunning, Frank's bill included a blanket exception to the rules for currency swaps traded on foreign exchanges — the very instruments that had triggered the Long-Term Capital Management meltdown in the late 1990s.

Given that derivatives were at the heart of the financial meltdown last year, the decision to gut derivatives reform sent some legislators howling with disgust. Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington, who estimates that as much as 90 percent of all derivatives could remain unregulated under the new rules, went so far as to say the new laws would make things worse. "Current law with its loopholes might actually be better than these loopholes," she said.
An even bigger loophole could do far worse damage to the economy. Under the original bill, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission were granted the power to ban any credit swaps deemed to be "detrimental to the stability of a financial market or of participants in a financial market." By the time Frank's committee was done with the bill, however, the SEC and the CFTC were left with no authority to do anything about abusive derivatives other than to send a report to Congress. The move, in effect, would leave the kind of credit-default swaps that brought down AIG largely unregulated.
Why would leading congressional Democrats, working closely with the Obama administration, agree to leave one of the riskiest of all financial instruments unregulated, even before the issue could be debated by the House? "There was concern that a broad grant to ban abusive swaps would be unsettling," Frank explained.

Unsettling to whom? Certainly not to you and me — but then again, actual people are not really part of the calculus when it comes to finance reform. According to those close to the markup process, Frank's committee inserted loopholes under pressure from "constituents" — by which they mean anyone "who can afford a lobbyist," says Michael Greenberger, the former head of trading at the CFTC under Clinton.

This pattern would repeat itself over and over again throughout the fall. Take the centerpiece of Obama's reform proposal: the much-ballyhooed creation of a Consumer Finance Protection Agency to protect the little guy from abusive bank practices. Like the derivatives bill, the debate over the CFPA ended up being dominated by horse-trading for loopholes. In the end, Frank not only agreed to exempt some 8,000 of the nation's 8,200 banks from oversight by the castrated-in-advance agency, leaving most consumers unprotected, he allowed the committee to pass the exemption by voice vote, meaning that congressmen could side with the banks without actually attaching their name to their "Aye."

To win the support of conservative Democrats, Frank also backed down on another issue that seemed like a slam-dunk: a requirement that all banks offer so-called "plain vanilla" products, such as no-frills mortgages, to give consumers an alternative to deceptive, "fully loaded" deals like adjustable-rate loans. Frank's last-minute reversal — made in consultation with Geithner — was such a transparent giveaway to the banks that even an economics writer for Reuters, hardly a far-left source, called it "the beginning of the end of meaningful regulatory reform."
But the real kicker came when Frank's committee took up what is known as "resolution authority" — government-speak for "Who the hell is in charge the next time somebody at AIG or Lehman Brothers decides to vaporize the economy?" What the committee initially introduced bore a striking resemblance to a proposal written by Geithner earlier in the summer. A masterpiece of legislative chicanery, the measure would have given the White House permanent and unlimited authority to execute future bailouts of megaconglomerates like Citigroup and Bear Stearns.

Democrats pushed the move as politically uncontroversial, claiming that the bill will force Wall Street to pay for any future bailouts and "doesn't use taxpayer money." In reality, that was complete bullshit. The way the bill was written, the FDIC would basically borrow money from the Treasury — i.e., from ordinary taxpayers — to bail out any of the nation's two dozen or so largest financial companies that the president deems in need of government assistance. After the bailout is executed, the president would then levy a tax on financial firms with assets of more than $10 billion to repay the Treasury within 60 months — unless, that is, the president decides he doesn't want to! "They can wait indefinitely to repay," says Rep. Brad Sherman of California, who dubbed the early version of the bill "TARP on steroids."

The new bailout authority also mandated that future bailouts would not include an exchange of equity "in any form" — meaning that taxpayers would get nothing in return for underwriting Wall Street's mistakes. Even more outrageous, it specifically prohibited Congress from rejecting tax giveaways to Wall Street, as it did last year, by removing all congressional oversight of future bailouts. In fact, the resolution authority proposed by Frank was such a slurpingly obvious blow job of Wall Street that it provoked a revolt among his own committee members, with junior Democrats waging a spirited fight that restored congressional oversight to future bailouts, requires equity for taxpayer money and caps assistance to troubled firms at $150 billion. Another amendment to force companies with more than $50 billion in assets to pay into a rainy-day fund for bailouts passed by a resounding vote of 52 to 17 — with the "Nays" all coming from Frank and other senior Democrats loyal to the administration.

Even as amended, however, resolution authority still has the potential to be truly revolutionary legislation. The Senate version still grants the president unlimited power over equity-free bailouts, and the amended House bill still institutionalizes a system of taxpayer support for the 20 to 25 biggest banks in the country. It would essentially grant economic immortality to those top few megafirms, who will continually gobble up greater and greater slices of market share as money becomes cheaper and cheaper for them to borrow (after all, who wouldn't lend to a company permanently backstopped by the federal government?). It would also formalize the government's role in the global economy and turn the presidential-appointment process into an important part of every big firm's business strategy. "If this passes, the very first thing these companies are going to do in the future is ask themselves, 'How do we make sure that one of our executives becomes assistant Treasury secretary?'" says Sherman.

On the Senate side, finance reform has yet to make it through the markup process, but there's every reason to believe that its final bill will be as watered down as the House version by the time it comes to a vote. The original measure, drafted by chairman Christopher Dodd of the Senate Banking Committee, is surprisingly tough on Wall Street — a fact that almost everyone in town chalks up to Dodd's desperation to shake the bad publicity he incurred by accepting a sweetheart mortgage from the notorious lender Countrywide. "He's got to do the shake-his-fist-at-Wall Street thing because of his, you know, problems," says a Democratic Senate aide. "So that's why the bill is starting out kind of tough."

The aide pauses. "The question is, though, what will it end up looking like?"

He's right — that is the question. Because the way it works is that all of these great-sounding reforms get whittled down bit by bit as they move through the committee markup process, until finally there's nothing left but the exceptions. In one example, a measure that would have forced financial companies to be more accountable to shareholders by holding elections for their entire boards every year has already been watered down to preserve the current system of staggered votes. In other cases, this being the Senate, loopholes were inserted before the debate even began: The Dodd bill included the exemption for foreign-currency swaps — a gift to Wall Street that only appeared in the Frank bill during the course of hearings — from the very outset.
The White House's refusal to push for real reform stands in stark contrast to what it should be doing. It was left to Rep. Paul Kanjorski in the House and Bernie Sanders in the Senate to propose bills to break up the so-called "too big to fail" banks. Both measures would give Congress the power to dismantle those pseudomonopolies controlling almost the entire derivatives market (Goldman, Citi, Chase, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America control 95 percent of the $290 trillion over-the-counter market) and the consumer-lending market (Citi, Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo issue one of every two mortgages, and two of every three credit cards). On November 18th, in a move that demonstrates just how nervous Democrats are getting about the growing outrage over taxpayer giveaways, Barney Frank's committee actually passed Kanjorski's measure. "It's a beginning," Kanjorski says hopefully. "We're on our way." But even if the Senate follows suit, big banks could well survive — depending on whom the president appoints to sit on the new regulatory board mandated by the measure. An oversight body filled with executives of the type Obama has favored to date from Citi and Goldman Sachs hardly seems like a strong bet to start taking an ax to concentrated wealth. And given the new bailout provisions that provide these megafirms a market advantage over smaller banks (those Paul Volcker calls "too small to save"), the failure to break them up qualifies as a major policy decision with potentially disastrous consequences.

"They should be doing what Teddy Roosevelt did," says Sanders. "They should be busting the trusts."

That probably won't happen anytime soon. But at a minimum, Obama should start on the road back to sanity by making a long-overdue move: firing Geithner. Not only are the mop-headed weenie of a Treasury secretary's fingerprints on virtually all the gross giveaways in the new reform legislation, he's a living symbol of the Rubinite gangrene crawling up the leg of this administration. Putting Geithner against the wall and replacing him with an actual human being not recently employed by a Wall Street megabank would do a lot to prove that Obama was listening this past Election Day. And while there are some who think Geithner is about to go — "he almost has to," says one Democratic strategist — at the moment, the president is still letting Wall Street do his talking.

Morning, the National Mall, November 5th. A year to the day after Obama named Michael Froman to his transition team, his political "opposition" has descended upon the city. Republican teabaggers from all 50 states have showed up, a vast horde of frowning, pissed-off middle-aged white people with their idiot placards in hand, ready to do cultural battle. They are here to protest Obama's "socialist" health care bill — you know, the one that even a bloodsucking capitalist interest group like Big Pharma spent $150 million to get passed.

These teabaggers don't know that, however. All they know is that a big government program might end up using tax dollars to pay the medical bills of rapidly breeding Dominican immigrants. So they hate it. They're also in a groove, knowing that at the polls a few days earlier, people like themselves had a big hand in ousting several Obama-allied Democrats, including a governor of New Jersey who just happened to be the former CEO of Goldman Sachs. A sign held up by New Jersey protesters bears the warning, "If You Vote For Obamacare, We Will Corzine You."

I approach a woman named Pat Defillipis from Toms River, New Jersey, and ask her why she's here. "To protest health care," she answers. "And then amnesty. You know, immigration amnesty."

I ask her if she's aware that there's a big hearing going on in the House today, where Barney Frank's committee is marking up a bill to reform the financial regulatory system. She recognizes Frank's name, wincing, but the rest of my question leaves her staring at me like I'm an alien.
"Do you care at all about economic regulation?" I ask. "There was sort of a big economic collapse last year. Do you have any ideas about how that whole deal should be fixed?"

"We got to slow down on spending," she says. "We can't afford it."

"But what do we do about the rules governing Wall Street . . ."

She walks away. She doesn't give a fuck. People like Pat aren't aware of it, but they're the best friends Obama has. They hate him, sure, but they don't hate him for any reasons that make sense. When it comes down to it, most of them hate the president for all the usual reasons they hate "liberals" — because he uses big words, doesn't believe in hell and doesn't flip out at the sight of gay people holding hands. Additionally, of course, he's black, and wasn't born in America, and is married to a woman who secretly hates our country.

These are the kinds of voters whom Obama's gang of Wall Street advisers is counting on: idiots. People whose votes depend not on whether the party in power delivers them jobs or protects them from economic villains, but on what cultural markers the candidate flashes on TV. Finance reform has become to Obama what Iraq War coffins were to Bush: something to be tucked safely out of sight.

Around the same time that finance reform was being watered down in Congress at the behest of his Treasury secretary, Obama was making a pit stop to raise money from Wall Street. On October 20th, the president went to the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York and addressed some 200 financiers and business moguls, each of whom paid the maximum allowable contribution of $30,400 to the Democratic Party. But an organizer of the event, Daniel Fass, announced in advance that support for the president might be lighter than expected — bailed-out firms like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs were expected to contribute a meager $91,000 to the event — because bankers were tired of being lectured about their misdeeds.
"The investment community feels very put-upon," Fass explained. "They feel there is no reason why they shouldn't earn $1 million to $200 million a year, and they don't want to be held responsible for the global financial meltdown."

Which makes sense. Shit, who could blame the investment community for the meltdown? What kind of assholes are we to put any of this on them?

This is the kind of person who is working for the Obama administration, which makes it unsurprising that we're getting no real reform of the finance industry. There's no other way to say it: Barack Obama, a once-in-a-generation political talent whose graceful conquest of America's racial dragons en route to the White House inspired the entire world, has for some reason allowed his presidency to be hijacked by sniveling, low-rent shitheads. Instead of reining in Wall Street, Obama has allowed himself to be seduced by it, leaving even his erstwhile campaign adviser, ex-Fed chief Paul Volcker, concerned about a "moral hazard" creeping over his administration.

"The obvious danger is that with the passage of time, risk-taking will be encouraged and efforts at prudential restraint will be resisted," Volcker told Congress in September, expressing concerns about all the regulatory loopholes in Frank's bill. "Ultimately, the possibility of further crises — even greater crises — will increase."

What's most troubling is that we don't know if Obama has changed, or if the influence of Wall Street is simply a fundamental and ineradicable element of our electoral system. What we do know is that Barack Obama pulled a bait-and-switch on us. If it were any other politician, we wouldn't be surprised. Maybe it's our fault, for thinking he was different.